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More bookish things in the Cevennes

At the end of May I went walking in the Cevennes region of France. The area’s most famous literary connection is with Modestine, the donkey. The previous post looked at Robert Louis Stevenson and Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. Now I consider three other books connected with the area.

Le Rozier

  1. Village of Secrets: defying the Nazis in Vichy France by Caroline Moorehead

The Cevennes lies in the southern part of le massif central. Northeast of Robert Louis Stevenson’s route lies the large plateau Viverais-Lignon where the villages, farms and forests are frequently cut off in winter and require effort to reach at other times of year. It is high, remote and isolated. It also has clean, restorative air and, long before the Second World War, had been a place for the French to improve their health during the summer months, especially children.

257 VofS cover

During the time of Vichy government and the occupation of France hundreds, perhaps thousands of people fled from the German occupiers to the plateau. First it was the Spanish refugees from the Civil War in Spain; then the foreign Jewish families who had escaped to France and needed to hide from the occupying German forces when France was defeated; then it was the French Jewish families, who had been assured of the protection of the Vichy government and then betrayed; later on, the Service de Travail Obligatoire (STO) introduced national service for the French to work in Germany and many people went into hiding to avoid the STO; and the Maquis, the local resistance movement also found cover on the plateau. Most of these people survived the war.

La Causse Mejean

The book tells the reader what happened, but also asks the question, what was it about the people of the plateau that enabled them to successfully defy the demands of the occupiers and to shelter these fugatives?

The geography of the plateau made it excellent for hiding.

The bravery of individuals and the determination of the organisations that hid those in danger, especially the Jewish children, was another feature.

There was a history of Protestant resistance, stretching back to the bloody wars of religion in the 18th Century, described in some detail by Robert Louis Stevenson in his book of 1879. Some of the pastors were pacifists, all dedicated to assistance. Two sects, offshoots of Plymouth Brethren, were present on the plateau, austere and with an entrenched privacy and resistance to asking questions. Even some of the local police turned a blind eye to the hidden children.

It’s an important story, but was not an easy book to write, Caroline Moorehead tells us in an article Caroline Moorehead on Village of Secrets: ‘I received warnings’. The warnings came from a group who wished to preserve the story of the heroism of a single man, whereas she celebrates the efforts and commitment of the whole community. It was not a story of a single hero. There was no monopoly on goodness, she explains.

And as a footnote, Albert Camus spent two winters on the plateau, writing La Peste.

Village of Secrets: defying the Nazis in Vichy France. Caroline Moorehead (2014) published by Vintage. 374 pp. Shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.

  1. Trespass by Rose Tremain

257 Trespass cover

This novel was shortlisted for Man Booker Prize in 2011. I read it when it was published and these comments are from my notes.

This was quite an easy read, but the story felt a little unresolved. It concerns disputed property in the south of France, and a vivid family past. A parallel story concerns a gay English woman who writes and gardens in the same area, whose brother wishes to buy a property in the area to recover his sense of self. Their stories collide badly, and little resolution is made, except by the perpetrator of the murder, who is not apprehended. This did not leave me with a sense of calm, a story ended. On the one hand satisfying revenge is had, on the other people have been plunged into grief and trauma as a result.

It’s quite a short novel, and told from a number of perspectives. Resentments, built up over long lives, are well portrayed, but it is hard to know whose story this is, and why one should care. Ultimately it feels like the rich middle class English causing rifts and damage in their new colonies.

Trespass by Rose Tremain, published by Penguin in 2011. 384pp.

Aver Amand

  1. Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne

257 Verne_-_Voyage_au_centre_de_la_Terre.djvu

And then there was Jules Verne, greeting us in the limestone caves of Aven Armand. The tour of the caves used the device of his novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth to introduce us to the fantastical stalagmites and stalactites. It was slightly dodgy as Jules Verne wrote his book before the caves were found. But the idea of great scientific discoveries being made in the 19th Century, the excitement at the new knowledge, especially about the age and development of the earth, was a point being made. Did you know that it takes a century for the stalagmites to grow 1 cm? The literary connection gave me an excuse to include a photo

257 Jules Verne

Relevant posts and websites

Travels with Robert Louis Stevenson in the Cevennes (June 2016) on this blog.

Trip Fiction for advice on fiction related to your journeys.

Reading Guide for Trespass by Rose Tremain.

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To Moscow with Books

What picture do you have in your head of Moscow? If you have never been, perhaps it is like mine: dark, threatening, sombre people and brutal buildings. And how was this vision built? Through films and news reports from the Cold War era. Who hasn’t seen the parades through Red Square? Who hasn’t heard about the eavesdropping, being tailed, the bureaucracy? The image has not been improved by recent killings of opposition folk: Alexander Litvinenko poisoned in London in October 2006, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya shot in Moscow in October 2006 and in February 2015 Boris Nemtsov shot in the back as he walked on the Bolshoy Moskvorsky Bridge.

Moscow Metro

Moscow Metro

The image of Moscow as dark, dangerous and mysterious may have been created by novels as well. In the first of the three discussed the Moscow location is an essential feature.

  1. Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith (1981)

99 G Park coverThis is set in Moscow in 1981, the time of Brezhnev. Corruption is rife. There is an uncomfortable relationship between the Moscow city police and the KGB. Three bodies found frozen and mutilated in the snow in Gorky Park lead through the city, briefly to the border area beyond Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and ultimately to New York. It was the first in a series featuring investigator Arkady Renko.

The novel is mostly played out on the city’s streets and its buildings: offices, hotels and apartments. I read one climactic scene, a near-drowning in the University ponds, on the day we visited.

Moscow University with ponds

Moscow University with ponds

Martin Cruz Smith illuminates the physical appearance of Moscow in the early 1980s. Much of what he describes is still present.

Soviet gothic was not so much an architectural style as a form of worship. Elements of Greek, French, Chinese and Italian masterpieces had been thrown in the barbarian wagon and carried to Moscow and the Master Builder Himself, who had piled them one on the other into the cement towers and blazing torches of His rule, monstrous skyscrapers of ominous windows, mysterious crenellations and dizzying towers that led to the clouds, and yet still more rising spires surmounted by ruby stars that at night glowed like His eyes. After His death, His creations were more embarrassment than menace, too big for burial with Him, so they stood, one to each part of town, great brooding semi-Oriental temples, not exorcised but used. The one in the Kievskaya District, west of the river, was the Hotel Ukraina. (101)

Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith (first published in 1981), available from Simon & Schuster 559pp

  1. Snowdrops by AD Miller (2011)

199 Sdrops coverSnowdrops is a depressing story as no one in it behaves well. The narrator is confessing to his fiancée, but you feel he is unlikely to be forgiven by her. Miller describes Moscow in the first decade of twenty-first century, and the corruption in housing and the big oil companies. Snowdrops considers corporate and individual corruption through the narrator’s role in them. Weaknesses that leads to corruption are not only money, but also sex, fear, a need for attention, wanting to be right, fear of being wrong.

Two Russian young women pick up Nick on the Metro and take him for a ride, using his services as a lawyer to defraud their victim of her flat. The Cossack takes Nick and his fellow lawyers for a similar ride with investments in oil production. In both cases Nick gradually becomes aware of the scam, but does not speak out and prevent them. He colludes. It’s a grubby story.

The narrator meets Maria on the Metro, as he waits on the platform at Revolution Square, ‘where the civilian statues are – athletes, engineers, bosomy female farmhands and mothers holding muscular babies’ (8).

Moscow Metro, Revolution Square

Moscow Metro, Revolution Square

Snowdrops by AD Miller (2011) published by Atlantic Books. 273pp. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2011.

  1. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1966/7)

Translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

199 M & M coverFor a view of Moscow in the early 1930s this novel of satire and phantasmagoria is hard to beat. Its subject are Stalin’s regime, which was approaching the height of its power, the madness and menace of the regime and the chaos it caused. I couldn’t tell you the story, it is outlandish and hard to follow. At the time I read it I noted that ‘after the mayhem in Moscow it got easier to follow, and I even found myself thinking I might go back to the beginning’.

This book captures the borders of the familiar world with a dystopia and made me wonder about some aspects of our visit to Moscow. The drive from the airport to the city centre for example. Four of us were crammed into one car. The driver shot forward immediately, as he did every time he saw a meter of road. In the dense jam on the route into Moscow he went off road onto the hard shoulder and positioned our car is such a way that other cars could not cut back in, holding a shouting match with one driver whose car was 2 cms from ours. When we reached Mscow he shouted at us. None of us understood Russian and he had no English. Perhaps we had a sightseeing tour. As he left us he blew a raspberry for we did not give him a tip. I have only been more frightened in Malta, where we drove round U-bends on the wrong side of the road, in defiance of traffic rules and gravity.

The Master and Margarita generated spontaneous approaches from people on public transport when I was reading it. The impression it left with me added to the sense that in Moscow everything might not be what it seems, something was lurking …

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (first published in 1966-7) and republished by Penguin Classics 396pp

And has it changed?

There is still violence on the streets of Moscow. You might notice that the memorial on the bridge where Boris Nemtsov was shot six months before is close to the domes of St Giles Cathedral and Red Square.

Memorial toBoris Nemtov, shot on this bridge in February 2015

Memorial toBoris Nemtov, shot on this bridge in February 2015

Armed men still parade in Red Square. These men were rehearsing for a Moscow Day celebration.

Red Square, rehearsing for Moscow Day 2015

Red Square, rehearsing for Moscow Day 2015

And Gorky Park is still popular, full of young people and a delightful place to visit with its dancing musical fountains, young people and kiosks.

Gorky Park, musical fountains playing Russian classics

Gorky Park, musical fountains playing Russian classics

Moscow was a surprise to me despite these. I found it was a lively and accessible city, with beautiful metro stations and helpful people just getting on with it.

Related posts:

You can find a list of 10 novels set in Moscow in the Guardian. It included classics such as Boris Godunov by Pushkin, War and Peace by Tolstoy and Three Sisters by Chekhov.

Also see Trip Fiction site to find location-based fiction.

Previous travel and book related posts on this blog are:

Judenplatz, Vienna (March 2013)

Tales from the Vienna Streets (July 2013)

Berlin Stories (Oct 2014)

Amsterdam Stories (Dec 2014)

Bookword in Alsace (May 2015)

Coming soon: St Petersburg (Sept 2015)

 

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Travel with Books